(Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC.; Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery)

Helen Levitt (b. 1913)

New York, 1988

On view at the Perez Art Museum in Miami

Great Works, In Focus

Move over, mom!

How did Helen Levitt cram so much life into her photo of a New York City phone booth?

Helen Levitt’s “New York, 1988.” On view at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. (Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC.; Thomas Zander Gallery)

Helen Levitt, one of the 20th century’s great street photographers, had a special eye for what children do with their bodies. Unlike adults, who’ve acquired habits of physical decorum and self-containment even as they battle unwanted bulges and gravity, children are wild, inelegant, anarchic.

Just watch them. They’ll squat and bend into rounded lumps as they retrieve balls from under cars. They’ll turn themselves into crazy two-headed sculptures as they wrestle or hug. They’ll stick out their ribs, stop breathing and make like a stick as they try to blend into a wall.

Helen Levitt’s “New York, 1988.” On view at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. (Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC.; Thomas Zander Gallery)

Levitt photographed in New York’s poorer neighborhoods before and during World War II. These images, which won early admirers, including Walker Evans, were in black and white. In 1959, after Levitt won a Guggenheim Fellowship, she turned to color film.

She took this photograph (now at Pérez Art Museum in Miami) in 1988, the year she turned 75. It shows two children squeezing their bodies into a phone booth dominated by a heavyset woman. You assume she’s their mother.

It’s a wonderful, pomposity-puncturing picture that looks caught on the fly, but it’s also beautifully composed. The image is alive to unexpected color rhymes (yellow and dull green) and has an intriguing sense of space (compare the deep perspective to the left of the booth with the flat space that becomes obstructed on the right).

In photograph after photograph, Levitt showed that children’s physical gaucheness can be authentically expressive. In fact, the shapes their bodies make are to the decorous postures of adults as children’s halting speech is to adult fluency. They remind you, in any case, that there’s more to self-expression than having a smooth tongue.

Levitt’s photograph is a gorgeous, playful image of a family’s easy intimacy. But it’s also a claustrophobic image.

Her career overlapped with a period of heightened interest in child psychology. The pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about children’s play as a pathway to fullness of being. Problems can arise, he suggested, when their natural desires meet too much resistance, when they have no room to play, when their movements are constrained.

Here, the mother figure is conducting adult business. Her posture expresses her mature self-possession. She’s earned the space allotted her; she’s going to occupy it. The kids, comparatively, have no sovereignty. They must draw on all their inventiveness, squirming and twisting themselves into ungainly yet marvelously expressive postures as they squeeze into the spaces left over.

It won’t be long before they won’t fit at all.


Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.